Neil Ashton - This Is Your Life
Neil Ashton, owner and founder of Freedom, is a man of many talents. From advertising campaigns to brewing his own beer, from making shirts to shooting films, each company he has created represents a stage in his fascinating life. He casually tosses famous names into the conversation – Bono, Johnny Depp, Kate Moss. All played a part in the birth of Freedom Recruitment.
So, how did a man with a background in the entertainment industry, end up at the head of one of the most established fashion recruitment concerns in Britain. Why fashion? And why Freedom?
“Well, I started an agency that represented fashion photographers and other media workers in 1986 called Camilla Arthur Representation,” he says. “We acted on behalf of make-up artists, stylists, hairdressers, everyone producing still shoots around the world. So I got to know a lot of people in fashion.
“We were also quite prolific in making television commercials and documentaries, and a defining moment in starting Freedom Recruitment came in Namibia, of all places. We were shooting a commercial for Land Rover Discovery, in somewhere called Swakopmund, and I looked around and thought I needed to be in a business with more sustainable revenue. We were singing for our supper every time. Any job could be our last, and once this project was done I could be two months waiting for my next one. I wanted to get a steady business. I had read a newspaper article by someone I went to school with, actually – Professor Hamish Stevenson, who founded Fast Track – talking about opportunities in the recruitment industry. It sounded like a plan.
“We found two people who knew recruitment really well, real experts at it, and made a profit within the first two months. We worked well together, worked well as a team. I thought they could be the type of people that may leave us, which a year later they did. But by then it was fine, you know, because we had almost planned that this would happen. There were eight of us by then, we were up and running. I remember it well, because I was still making videos and that one was for this band called the Spice Girls. I’d just put Ginger’s Union Jack dress on my Amex card, funnily enough.
“So all of this was going on around this baby recruitment company on the bottom floor of the Camilla Arthur Representation offices in Great Marlborough Street. This was previously Jasper Conran’s office that his father had designed for him, with these magnificent doors which were in the front of the building with massive glass frontage. I loved that office; it was a great office, with fantastic furniture made by a friend of mine called Paul Daly who was also making all of Bono’s furniture for his new house in Dublin. It was a great place full of interesting, creative people and we had the whole building full of film makers and photographers, except for one floor which was Freedom Recruitment.
“The name Freedom came from when we were setting up Freedom Films. I asked my father to come up with a name and he said Liberty Films, which was good – but we had one employee, this girl who was very well connected in the industry. She was having a dinner party – and I’m going to drop a few more names here – with Johnny Depp and Kate Moss, and a few other people. I couldn’t go but asked her to ask the party, what they thought the best name for a film company would be. And someone came up with Freedom, which is a bit close to Liberty, if you think about it. I’ve used it in all my businesses since. Freedom Videos, Freedom Television, Freedom Beer and eventually Freedom Recruitment."
So what is Neil’s philosophy for Freedom Recruitment? “It’s all driven by people for me,” he explains. “I’m not really motivated by anything other than people. You go through different phases. Remember when you were at school you might have a dream year where everybody really gets on, it’s really cool and there’s a great gang. And that moment in time can define your whole experience, your whole memory of the place. I think it’s been like that here. There are times when I’ve felt there was a great team, things were working, we were making money but still had that great atmosphere, you know? So the people are the good side and the bad bits are usually driven by the economy – so 2008 was very difficult for us, but then the best people show their true colours in those moments. You’re going through a recession and seeing something effectively dive bomb. We went from having our best revenue ever in September to one of the worst in November. We decided the way through was to protect Freedom and invest in it. And that’s all we’ve done ever since. I put money back into the company and we nurtured it and now we’re here today.”
So, with so much uncertainty around Britain’s economic future post-Brexit, what is Neil’s advice to those looking to start their own company. “Starting out is always tough too, but it’s something I have always enjoyed,” he says. “It’s all positive; a great thing. You first have that idea, you decide to be brave enough to do it and off you go on a journey. But there are a few disciplines you need to get right when you’re building something from the ground up. You must have very clear targets that you set yourself on a daily basis, even an hourly basis, to be sure that you get to the afternoon and you’ve done what you set out to do. The same with life really. You need structure. You can’t just float through it. Then, you must immerse yourself in what you’re doing, in the business, absolutely. You need to understand it; you need to understand the language of it, you need to be part of it, know the people, get the gossip, you want to be part of the fabric, pardon the pun. This isn’t just about fashion or recruitment, it applies to any business: as long as you have the fundamentals, the process, the execution, the determination, you will achieve a certain level of success. But if you really want to go out and win, you need to breathe it.”
As we wind up the interview, Neil seems almost upset to have ended on a serious note. “Come on; let’s get down to the juicy stuff.” Maybe next time. There’s a lot of ground still to cover.